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Gibbon 'em the business

The nation’s oldest primate sanctuary, Primarily Primates of Northwest Bexar County, is welcoming back three gibbons after settling a case with two other sanctuaries.

The three gibbons were part of a group of 12 that was adopted by the International Primate Protection League after a 2006 Texas lawsuit found that more than 700 animals were living in unacceptable conditions.

The conditions at Primarily Primates, which according to a petition filed by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott included pools of untreated sewage, substandard veterinary care, inadequate food and water, and overcrowded cages, led to the transfer of a number of animals in late March 2007. Those transferred included the 12 gibbons, which were taken to the International Primate Protection League sanctuary, in Summerville, South Carolina, and the two chimpanzees, which were housed in Bend, Oregon, at Chimps, Inc.

In the wake of this lawsuit, Friends of Animals, an international non-profit group, took over Primarily Primates, and the group’s president, Priscilla Feral, assumed the position of Chairman of the Board at Primarily Primates. Friends of Animals had been the major donor to the facility for over 20 years at the time of the take over according to Nancy Scott Jones, a public relations spokesperson for Primarily Primates.

The state of Texas decided to drop its case against Primarily Primates in May 2007, stating that conditions had improved under this new supervision.

The adopting centers paid for the transfer of the animals, built special habitats to house them and provided them with veterinary care that included rehabilitation and recovery from the abuses that allegedly occurred at Primarily Primates.

Primarily Primates asked for the return of the animals claiming that – under its new management – the sanctuary had been improved and was now able to house the animals.

The adopting facilities still had their doubts, however, so in June 2007, Chimps, Inc. and the IPPL filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Eugene, Oregon – near Chimps, Inc. – to keep the animals at their new homes. In the suit they claimed that the animals had been living "in filth" and that the Primarily Primates site was "no better than a warehouse to hold these animals until they die."

"The facility still doesn't have cages suitable for gibbons," Shirley McGreal, founder of the IPPL, told a South Carolina paper last year. "For instance, gibbons live high up in trees. The cages in Texas were about 7 feet tall. The cages near Summerville have spaces that are 20 feet tall."

Jones said the old habitats for the gibbons had been renovated, and that they were now living in a two-section living space so that the animals would be able to separate themselves from the group if they desired.

Feral said that Primarily Primates’ staff had doubled the space available for the gibbons, added a series of tunnels to their habitat and extending the overhead space for the animals. She added that more renovations were planned for the gibbon’s habitat. She also commented that while IPPL’s trees were taller, the new gibbons’ habitat at Primarily Primates is twice as long as IPPL’s.

The 2008 settlement keeps the two chimpanzees, Emma and Jackson, at Chimps, Inc., to avoid displacing of them during adolescence.

"We want Emma and Jackson to have a happy life," Feral said. "We will always miss them; but we're confident they will enjoy a place of permanent safety."

Management at Chimps, Inc. was also was also satisfied by this result.

“I’m thrilled with the settlement. That means that Emma and Jackson can stay with us forever,” Paula Muellner, executive director at Chimps, Inc., told the Houston Chronicle.

The nine gibbons that did not return to Primarily Primates remained at IPPL. Stephen Tello, the director of Primarily Primates, returned the other three gibbons to the sanctuary June 3, after a two-day trip.

Feral stressed the importance of reuniting the three gibbons with the one who had remained behind, saying, “That to me was more important than anything else.”

Feral lamented that the single gibbon would sing, a form of communication between gibbons, but without any other gibbons around to answer it, the solo had a lonely quality.

Feral said that while she believed that Primarily Primates would have won the suit, it was more important to settle to ensure the well-being of the animals as quickly as possible. It was also important to her that the community of organizations remain intact, saying, “We also believe that reaching a settlement agreement allows us to move ahead and foster harmony in the sanctuary community,” in a post on the group’s website.

Jones said that “the gibbons are doing well,” and that they had been checked by the vet and were in good health. Feral added that “they're eating well” and that “they're exercising.”

Primarily Primates is currently engaged in another lawsuit over the return of animals, with the Chimp Haven sanctuary in Shreveport, Louisiana. Feral said that Primarily Primates had won the initial hearing and that she expected them to win in the appeal’s process as well, having the animals back by late summer.

Animals were also taken to the Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation center in Kendalia, Texas, after the 2006 lawsuit. According to Lynn Cuny, executive director at WRR, the sanctuary met with Feral after the lawsuit and a verbal agreement was made that the animals would remain at WWR.

According to Feral, Primarily Primates is an organization that is not government funded and relies heavily on the donations of individuals and other organizations. The recent lawsuits have dampened fund raising efforts.

“The reputation of the organization was severely damaged, and donations dropped off,” Feral said in a recent interview. “Certainly the contributions are not what they were several years ago.”

Friends of Animals is now the parent company of Primarily Primates. In the past year the organization has spent $1.5 million at Primary Primates. Friends of Animals also paid the legal costs that Primarily Primates accrued in the 2006 lawsuit.

Primarily Primates currently houses 327 primates and about 700 400 [corrected, 6/19] animals in all on its premises.

Posted by Josh Hughes on 6/10/2008
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